McGwiremania reaches red seats

Saturday, August 22, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Mark McGwire watches home run No. 51 Thursday night.
(AP photo)
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There was no line at the Cincinnati Reds ticket counter Friday afternoon. There was no wait. And for those intent on catching a Mark McGwire home run ball, there was not much in the way of selection.

If you want a glimpse of McGwire's Magical History Tour next month, and you don't already have tickets, you might want to bring binoculars. If you're determined to snag one of Big Mac's dingers, the most attractive odds might be on a blast to the opposite field.

The best seats I could buy Friday at the Reds downtown gift shop were in Section 342, Row 8. That's right down the left-field line, but above the walkway in the red seats. In 23 years of attending games at Cinergy Field, I have yet to see a fair ball hit that far. McGwire might come close Sept. 9 or 10, but the Reds steadfastly refuse to let me bring a butterfly net.

Baseball fans and speculators have snapped up most of the left-field seats for the Reds' two-game set with the St. Louis Cardinals. The left-field yellow seats are all gone, and the best available green seats are in straightaway center. Cincinnati might be a trifle slow to react to trends, but it tends to take notice when a ballplayer starts behaving like Babe Ruth.

By hitting his 50th and 51st home runs of the season Thursday in New York, McGwire must now acknowledge the obvious -- that he is within shattering range of baseball's most renowned record, Roger Maris' single-season mark of 61 home runs. At his present pace, McGwire would have 57.8 home runs when he next sets foot in Cincinnati.

Miles of walks

A feat once regarded as virtually impossible is now considered practically inevitable. About all that shields Maris from McGwire's assault is the possibility the St. Louis slugger may not see enough good pitches. McGwire has already drawn more than two miles worth of walks this year -- he had 133 through Thursday -- and has so far resisted the temptation to expand his strike zone for the sake of more swings.

"Based on what I've seen -- the way the bat is being taken out of his hands -- I don't think he's going to do it," Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa said Thursday. "Look through the crystal ball. Are clubs from the first inning on going to say, "Take your base,' or "It's a competition and I'm coming after you?' I don't know the answer to that."

That anyone would pitch to McGwire under any circumstances is astounding. His line drives are lethal, and his towering drives constitute a threat to the ozone layer. I'd pitch around him with first base open or occupied, in a tight ballgame or a blowout. Even when his run means nothing, his power could prove devastating to a pitcher's tender psyche.

When his run means everything, McGwire should be as diligently avoided as a deposition.

"I'd personally like to see him break the record," Reds manager Jack McKeon said Friday, from Three Rivers Stadium. "But not against us. I think records are meant to be broken, but I'm not going to do something that's against my better judgment to give 40,000 fans a chance (to see McGwire hit a homer). You're not playing the game just for McGwire. You're playing the game to win."

McKeon's passive aggression has been hugely successful so far. The Reds are undefeated in six games against the Cardinals, and McGwire has hit no homers. He has two hits and 11 bases on balls to show for 24 plate appearances.

Competitively, McKeon's strategy is clearly the right course. Commercially, it's enormously unpopular. Spectators following the home run chase -- Reds fans included -- want to be able to tell their grandchildren they saw McGwire go deep during his march on Maris. There isn't nearly as much mystique in an intentional walk.

"We're going to pitch to him unless he's got a chance to beat us," McKeon said. "Basically, we're in this business to win ballgames, and I think you've got to do it with the greatest of integrity."

If Mark McGwire is to hit any home runs against the Reds, he will have to earn them. If he should reach Section 342, stay out of my way.

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